GUEST POST BY CLAIRE MCLANE
Before arriving on Grand Manan for the 2017 Summer Field Studies Program, I had been thinking about landscape and how it shapes people’s livelihoods, from what we eat and how we cultivate or harvest our food, to how we communicate to each through time via myths, legends, and folklore. Medicine in both physical and spiritual form passed down through how people speak to each other across generations of knowing an environment intimately. And by intimately, I mean how the land and the water can give and take everything from someone. Food, shelter, joy, death, heartache, anger, and wonder along with the many other complicated emotions such a long and nuanced relationship to the natural world and its cycles can have.
Grand Manan is indeed a special place, and our time here has been blessed in many ways. Our conversations with Islanders and with people “from away” who have lived on Grand Manan for many years, have given us a glimpse into the life and history of a relatively small island rich in the life of the sea and the fishing industry.
Being on Grand Manan focused my attention in conscious and subconscious ways (my dreams on Grand Manan have been filled with the sea) to the rhythm of time and routine. The ferry coming and going, the fog arriving, and the subsequent steady hoo-oot of the fog horn from the Swallowtail Lighthouse, the tides (some of the most extreme found on the planet) rising and falling, the activity in the harbor, boats going out, boats coming in, tourists arriving and departing, the sun and moon rising and setting. The constant hum of work, and the shift from one task to another. This strong sense of routine and rhythm sparked my interest in learning more about daily life and the experience of raising families on Grand Manan.
Katie and I had the great pleasure of spending a couple of hours speaking with Carole Guptill. Carole has a wealth of knowledge about Grand Manan, and shared many stories with us from her experiences raising a family and being a nurse on the island. One blog post can in no way do justice to Carole’s stories that ranged from historic storms, funny anecdotes about raising children near the water, herring smoke houses, island ghosts, and babies being born mid-air while mothers were being flown to the mainland.
Carole has a warm smile and her eyes twinkle as she talks. We sat in her cozy light-filled living room while the sea glittered down across a freshly cropped lawn dotted with a few tall Spruce trees. There were jars of sea glass atop the coffee table and side tables around the room collected over the years from Grand Manan beaches. Carole excitedly showed us the latest addition to her collection, a small perfectly smoothed piece of brilliantly red sea glass – a rare and remarkable find that she happened upon just when she was about to give up looking that day. A fine ruby slipper among the more common green, blue, and white pieces.
Carole makes lovely little hanging mobiles from drift wood and sea glass. A few of these hung in the windows bringing little points of bright color to our peripheral vision. While Carole told us tales, showed us her collection of vintage Grand Manan postcards, and beautifully recited a few of her poems from memory, I couldn’t help but think how the sea had shaped these little shards of glass, taking them sharp and pointed, and wave after wave smoothing them into little pebble jewels for beachcombers to delight in finding. Much as the stories of Grand Manan have been shaped and kept by island life and the ever-constant tides. People keep the stories in their pockets, they turn them over in their memory. Some of the edges may get smoothed out or change shape a little, but the stories get passed down over and over again.
I’m from the Sonoran Desert, a place with expansive bright skies, extremes in temperature, shifts in light that give nod to the time when the area was all sea. When I hike to high points in the dry mountains on sunny days I look out across vast valleys and swear I can see the glitter and sheen of water, feel the fossils of long dead sea creatures lodged in the rocks beneath me. While Grand Manan is nearly the opposite of the Sonoran Desert in many ways, with its cooler temps, frequent fog, and emerald robe of green trees and vegetation, I couldn’t help but meditate on what the similarities could be between a desert and an island. Both environments are extreme in their own ways, the desert with its dry heat, and the sea with moody rip currents and storms. One’s eye is constantly trained to the horizon in the desert as it is to the sea. Without a deep ingrained knowledge and a discipline for preparedness, they can both be deadly rather quickly. There is a sense of isolation and contemplation in both environments, as well as people who tend to be resilient and independent. Does a landscape that requires these traits of its people, also foster a fierce sense of community? In Grand Manan I think it does. So many of Carole’s stories revolved around the communities built within family and neighbors, which quickly rippled out to the island as a whole.
On our last night we went to a talk about Kent island at the Grand Manan Museum. I was standing near Russell Ingalls who, when someone asked teasingly if he had been present at the time the 1930’s film we were watching had been made showing logging activity in Seal Cove, simply replied to the question: “No I wasn’t, but I’ve been told.” This was such a strong statement to me, and speaks to the strong oral tradition of many islanders and their deep ties to Grand Manan, the sea, and to fishing. To their sense of community and their knowledge of how to read their natural surroundings.
As I write this, Katie and Josh are making cookies in the sweet little Compass Rose B&B Flagg House kitchen that has been our home for the past two weeks. They are talking to each other through a series of communications about dough density, questions about egg cracking techniques, and chocolate chip ratio preferences. They are negotiating dough ball sizing, and joking with each other. Their hands are covered in sugar, flour and oats and they make frequent eye contact while mixing the sweet ingredients. They alternate between talking about the cookies and talking about the whales we saw yesterday. I sit typing away on my laptop listening to their cheerful chatter orbit the kitchen island, and I’m thinking about community, about the strong community that forms on islands in particular, and about the relationship the community members have not only with each other but with the natural world and the stories they tell. These stories get told while the cooking gets done, when the long light of afternoon is drifting through windows and people are sitting around and visiting with each other.
So many of my experiences on Grand Manan have had to do with precisely this relationship between people and nature. From watching the full moon rise over Long Island, to research students banding tiny Savannah Sparrow chicks, to watching Russell Ingalls watch the water as he maneuvered his boat skillfully into the basin at Kent Island. And for the pack of 10-12-year-old island boys kindly and curiously checking out the Harbor Seal pup resting on top of the lobster car at the North Head wharf, to seeing a field of hand-harvested dulse drying on huge round sunbaked rocks.
How grateful I am to have spent time in this special place and talked to so many wonderful people about their experience of Grand Manan, the island they call home.